Ash Wednesday (from the Latin dies cinerum which means "day of ashes") is a religious observance that occurs each year 46 days (40 days not including Sundays) before Easter Sunday. This day (which falls between February 2 and March 9 depending on when Easter is declared) marks the beginning of the Lenten season.
The observance of Ash Wednesday, started by the Roman Catholic Church, dates back at least to the eighth century A.D. Denominations such as Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and others observe this religious period.
Ash Wednesday receives its name from the ashes created by burning palms blessed the previous year on Palm Sunday. The receiving of dead embers is considered an outward sign (defined as a sacrament in the Catholic Church) of an internal state of repentance for one's sins.
This religious observance is partly based on the practice, found in the Bible, of wearing sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning, repentance or both (1913 Catholic Encyclopedia and 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica articles on Ash Wednesday). Many people in the Old Testament wore sackcloth when they mourned, including Jacob (Genesis 37:34), King David (2Samuel 3:31), King Ahab (1Kings 21:27), Daniel (Daniel 9:3) and many others.
Those who observe the day present themselves, while either standing or kneeling, before a priest or other ordained individual to receive ashes on their forehead shaped in the sign of a cross. As the sign of the cross is made, a version of the phrase "Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return" may be spoken. According to some Bible commentaries, Psalms 5, 32, 38 and 143 (with possibly others) are sometimes read on the day.
Preceding the start of Lent is a day known as Shrove Tuesday (also referred to by the French phrase 'Mardi Gras,' which translated means 'Fat Tuesday'). Since Lent is considered a time of fasting and prayer, the day before it starts has been traditionally considered a day to indulge in revelry and eating rich foods (foods that observers will not eat during the Lenten period).
One treat related to Ash Wednesday, eaten the day before, is called Paczki (pronounced pawnch-kee). It is especially popular in areas with a sizable Polish population such as Chicago, Buffalo, Toledo, Southeastern Michigan and Milwaukee, as well as the city of Windsor in Canada.
Paczkis are a traditional Polish donut that is round and is typically bigger, with more filing, than an average sized American-made donut. Polish Catholics traditionally indulged in such fat-filled pastries just before Ash Wednesday in preparation for fasting on the day.